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Washington House panel considers ‘ag-gag’ bill

OLYMPIA – An “ag-gag” bill, similar to one passed last year in Idaho to protect farm operations from unapproved video and audio recordings, would hurt whistleblowers and interfere with free speech rights, legislators were told on Tuesday.

Critics including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Civil Liberties Union said language in the bill is so broad that it could become a crime to cause economic harm or hardship to any business. That would include a strike, work stoppage or boycott.

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, sponsor of a bill to create a new crime of interference with agricultural production, said the proposal only provides protection for businesses from unapproved recordings of legal activities. Farmers, ranchers and other ag businesses are concerned about people who would record legal activity, then edit it to make it look illegal and inflame the public.

“It offers a lot of the same protections you’d have in your home,” Schmick said. “It doesn’t protect (businesses) against illegal activity.”

Republicans on the House Public Safety Committee agreed, with Rep. Dan Griffey of Allyn calling it a “no-brainer.” Rep. Brad Klippert of Kennewick said the Constitution “protects your home as your castle” and that should be extended to farms.

But Democrats questioned whether much of the activity mentioned in the bill isn’t already against the law under trespass or vandalism statutes. Witnesses at the hearing said the bill is patterned after a law passed in Idaho last year that stemmed from an undercover investigation into a large dairy operation that produced a video showing physical and sexual abuse of cows. Rather than address the activity, the Idaho Legislature made it illegal to make such recordings without permission.

Opponent Sandy Smith of Kirkland said the bill was trying to criminalize whistleblowing by employees, and said even in a home, a family employee like a housekeeper who witnesses criminal activity such as child abuse would have a responsibility to report it.

“This is the opposite of public safety,” Teresa Mosqueda of the Washington State Labor Council said. “We must not criminalize those who bring these abuses to light.”

Schmick said he was willing to work with committee members to correct problems they saw in the bill. Representatives of the agricultural industry didn’t show up to testify in support, he contended, because “they’re scared of repercussions of just expressing an opinion.”

But House Republican leaders said they haven’t even polled members on the bill because they doubt majority Democrats will send it to the floor for a full vote. “The reception was not favorable in committee,” Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, said later.

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